Joe Gibbs: ‘Six oxen were roasted and liquor was on hand in abundance’

With the end of lockdown causing most occasional walkers to disappear, Joe Gibbs achieves the ambition of walking the highest part of the old military road through the Corrieyairack Pass between Melgarve and Fort Augustus.

During lockdown, paths over our usually deserted wee bit hill and glen became pulsing arteries of human locomotion. Everyone and their dogs shed plague plumpness by taking to two feet or two wheels. Our ‘deer controllers’, as we have to call them now, if we hope to avoid sporting rates, shook their heads at the quantity of multi-coloured Lycra wobbling through at the magic hours of dawn and dusk, times they used to have to themselves.

My pint-sized rugby ball of a Jack Russell, nicknamed Nicola — small, loud, bossy — sped joyously between a glut of dog fights. Terrorised labradors learnt to leap into their owners’ arms at her yap. Apologies wore thin.

Then, suddenly, with the end of May, silent emptiness. Like snow off the proverbial dyke, the walkers disappeared. The world has re-opened and allowed them to roam wider. Only familiar regulars remain: my acquaintance who furnishes me with racing tips and unsolicited lurid accounts of Inverness nightlife and a mysterious couple who, even in non-Covid times, walk in single file several yards apart, he in front, wordless, like Afghans or a piece of performance art.

The first time the road was used in anger was by Bonnie Prince Charlie

In concert with the new-found freedom of the times, I set off with a friend to achieve an ambition of walking the highest part of the old military road through the Corrieyairack Pass between Melgarve and Fort Augustus.

Gen George Wade built the road as a shortcut from Perth to the central Highlands. The rebellions of 1715 and 1719 had convinced the government that the rough bounds must be secured and Irish-born Wade oversaw the building of 250 miles of road in the Highlands.

The Corrieyairack was a rough track along which drovers from the West and Central Highlands walked their cattle south. It took 500 soldiers one year to turn its 28 miles into a paved road, which climbed 18 buttressed zig-zags to the 2,500ft summit of the pass.

Six oxen were roasted and liquor was on hand in abundance at a spot on the northern side of the pass on October 30, 1731, to reward the soldiers, toast the King’s birthday and, no doubt to the great relief of the poor bloody infantry, to celebrate the end of the road-building season in the Highlands.

Somewhat embarrassingly for Wade, Commander-in-Chief of His Majesty’s forces in Scotland, the first time the road was used in anger was by Bonnie Prince Charlie in 1745. The government sensibly avoided taking on the Highlanders at the pass and diverted towards Inverness.

The Prince, having raised his standard at Glenfinnan, spirited his force south over the convenient Corrieyairack to Edinburgh, victory at Prestonpans and some hasty packing by George II until the fateful about-turn by the Jacobites at Swarkestone Bridge near Derby. The snows that closed the pass for four months a year gradually put it out of use as a road and only the drovers and their charges returned.

In the 15 miles we walked, we saw but two other human beings. Almost as noticeable by their absence was the lack of bird and animal life. It was reassuring to read an account by a traveller of 35 years ago who saw only ptarmigan, a few moths and a bee.

The end of the road passes near a sad little coda. At Kilchumein cemetery near Fort Augustus is an 1830 memorial to the infant Archibald Fraser, an illegitimate descendant of Lovat of the ’45. His distraught parents refused to surrender him to God, burying him outside the cemetery walls, but beneath a cross, just in case.